Over the years, Onondaga Earth Corps (OEC) and the Council have partnered in various fruitful ways. OEC Director Greg Michel (pron. “Michael”) recently joined the Council Board; we wanted to get to know him and OEC better. A Council Blog post about the work of OEC can be seen here.
Greg Michel was born in Boston, then raised in Houston for a decade before his family moved to upstate NY when he was 12. He spent a gap year between high school and college in Japan as a Rotary Exchange Student, establishing an abiding interest in Japanese culture. After high school he attended Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio where he majored in International Studies with a regional focus on Japan and wrote his undergraduate thesis on “The Role of Japanese Identity in Cross-Cultural Communication.”
Michel then went to Tokyo Gakugei University to study International and Environmental Education at the graduate level, writing his thesis on “Impact of Global Connections on Place-Based Environmental Education,” and earning his master’s degree in 2001.
During and after grad school, Michel worked for six-and-a-half years for an organization now called ECOPLUS. “We connected kids from around the world online with environmental adventure locally as the source of learning,” he says. “Kids would go out and learn about, say, food or trees or their watershed—and they would share what they were doing with kids from classrooms around the world.”
“It was very adventure-focused,” he continues. “My boss went across the Arctic by dogsled and canoe and reported live from the field to classrooms. I embarked on a project looking for wisdom in Japanese communities—over the course of three years, I hiked from the northern tip of Japan to Okinawa, in 3-4 month chunks. I interviewed people along the journey about how they interacted with their natural environment, from the traditional wise ways to advanced renewable resource technology.”
Michel reported on what he learned to classrooms around the world and also went on adventures with kids in the program in their field experiences in Japan. Michel was also involved in taking Japanese youth to Micronesia to learn from traditional cultures there and he led stream climbing and snow camps. “It was a wonderful job,” he says.
When Michel and his wife Heejung got married and decided they wanted to raise their kids in the U.S. (they had their first son in Korea), they settled in 2007 in Syracuse, a good-sized city that was close to Clinton, where Michel’s parents lived. “We wanted to live in a city with diverse opportunities and good Korean food,” he says. Michel and Hee-jung have three kids: Kaelem (13), Aiden (11), and Elodie (7).
Before becoming OEC Director, Michel worked as a Natural Resources Youth Educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension and ran his consulting firm, Eco Aha! The firm has been involved with a wide range of projects, including consulting for the City of Syracuse Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and for Jubilee Homes on their Urban Farm project. Eco Aha! has also consulted on a number international programs, such as promoting collaboration on environmental projects between Korean and Japanese environmental groups and schools and organizing and designing exhibits and educational programs for ECOPLUS’ exhibition in the World Expo 2005 AICHI’s NGO Global Village. Michel also served as a consultant to OEC and on the OEC Board until he became Executive Director in 2014.
Michel’s connection to the Council began in 2007 when he attended his first ReLeaf Conference. “OEC had been sending crew members to ReLeaf even before I started at OEC,” he says. “The Council provides as much funding for registration, room, and board as they can so that our young crew members can meet urban forestry volunteers and professionals, see what’s happening at the state level, network, and learn more about the field.”
A recent highlight of the OEC-Council partnership was when five staff and crew members attended the Partners in Community Forestry Conference in Irvine, California in November, 2019. Crew member Taveon Stenson presented on the pruning work that the OEC youth do for the City of Syracuse and his talk was very well received, according to Michel.
“Advanced crew members Taveon, Amanda, and Tyrell were all rock stars at the Partners Conference,” Michel says, “because they could share their own experiences and knowledge of the whole spectrum of urban forestry work that happens at OEC, from outreach to getting planting site approvals to planting, to being very involved in the urban forest master planning process in Syracuse. People were excited to hear from young people who live in the community where the urban forestry efforts are happening. Given that equity and diversity themes were emphasized at the conference, their knowledge and experience really resonated with folks.”
What’s next for OEC? Michel says they are in consideration for participating in a workforce development case study with American Forests. “It’s early days, but it’s exciting that we’re being considered,” he says.
In his free time, Michel is busy with his family, taking the kids outdoors as much as possible, going camping, walking in the woods, or swimming. “When they were little, I’d bring them to planting events and plop themona blanket to read while I worked with volunteers. I think they got a little burned out with tree things, but this year my oldest son finally got interested in planting trees—that was very exciting for me.”